What makes for a great teacher? For generations, educators operated on the belief that great teaching was mostly an art, which the talented refine in the privacy of the classroom over many years of work. Think Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray in To Sir with Love or Richard Dreyfuss as Glenn Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus. The trouble with this romanticized idea is that it all depends on the individual. Yes, some educators grow and develop on their own initiative. But this model assumes that all teachers will naturally progress and negates the possibility that any educator can be coached or challenged to improve.
And because teaching happens behind closed doors, this conventional wisdom protects less-competent teachers from being assessed and, if necessary, removed. Truly awful teachers can effectively commit malpractice (like bad doctors) against thousands of unsuspecting students throughout a thirty-year career and still collect the same pay, benefits, and pensions as their most effective peers.
Right from the beginning of my job as chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and I realized that efforts to reinvigorate our existing teaching force would be controversial. But our endeavor was aided by the high incidence of turnover—especially in high-poverty communities—that allowed us to focus on recruiting top-quality people to fill vacated spots. The mayor raised salaries significantly and, under the terms of the contract we signed with the United Federation of Teachers in 2005, our teachers earned roughly what their peers made in more affluent suburban communities. We also partnered with Teach for America and the New Teacher Project to bring in high performers who didn’t come from the traditional education schools. In time, we would come to recruit almost one quarter of our new hires from these nontraditional sources. Many of these teachers came to us because they had heard the buzz about what we were doing.